Sunday, March 1, 2009

Education – Ignorance = Smart Grid Bliss

Yesterday a few friends and I went to the dog park and surveyed 60 homeowners to gather information on home improvements and energy efficiency. Before you start thinking to yourself, “This is how you spent your Saturday? What a bunch of hippie nerds”, let me correct you by saying that we are indeed nerds, but more of the yuppie or hippie-chic type. Besides collecting about a pound of dust in my hair, and a nice wind-burn, I also collected quite a bit of interesting information. One question in particular consistently had interesting answers and led to offbeat conversation. The question read: “Would you be willing to purchase a home monitoring service that would enable you to monitor your home’s energy usage over the web in real time? Why or why not?”

I was surprised to find that 63% of respondents said they would not be willing. There were a wide range of reasons given for this answer, the most common being along the lines of not caring or don’t understand how it will help change anything. However, the most interesting thing to me was how many people said they didn’t want one due to privacy issues or the “Big Brother” effect. I usually laugh at comments like these (and I did this time too), but it made me realize that more people than I thought think this way. The following is an editorial I found on a conservative website called RFD America called Smart Grid: Government spying targets Rural America. The piece is an unintentionally funny response to the smart grid funding included in the stimulus bill.

Now while I don’t think that commentaries like this pose a serious threat to rolling out the smart grid, I do think it further highlights the need to educate homeowners on how the smart grid will work and how it will benefit both them and the community. Initial results from Boulder’s SmartGridCity pilot program have validated the need for education and have allowed the local utility Xcel Energy to modify its software in response to feedback. The WSJ article in the above link does a nice job of highlighting some of the negative feedback; like comments saying the system is “cumbersome”, “boring” or the online reports are too “abstract”. Fixing these things is important because it has been continually shown that providing people with complete and easy to understand information is crucial to saving energy. This is perhaps best illustrated with the creation of car dashboards that include fuel efficiency meters. The Toyota Prius has some version of this, but Ford’s new dashboard prototype has taken it a step further and made the concept more game-like. Extensive user research found that the most efficient drivers treat fuel efficiency like a game and are always striving to beat their “high score”. The WSJ article mentions similar findings from initial participants in the SmartGridCity experiment. Now while this is probably stating the obvious, I think that it will be important for smart grid software to take advantage of this mentality and make the system as “game-like” as possible.

While I think the increased focus on energy efficiency and the smart grid is great, I keep having the recurring thought that the biggest obstacle will be to get the public buy-in necessary to effectively implement the plans. Government can include all the money they want for these programs, but if you can’t get people to actually take advantage of it, what good does it do? Programs aimed at the commercial or public sector have already seen some level of success and are much easier to put into action due to there being fewer points of contact. However, residential changes are much more difficult to implement due to volume and educational challenges.

Residential by far has the most potential for energy savings as is shown in a 2004 Kema study on the net achievable peak demand savings by 2014. The difference between “base efficiency” and “advanced efficiency” is just a difference in program cost hypotheticals, but as you can see, there is much larger potential for residential savings under any level of funding.

Source: Kema Inc., City Public Service Technical and
Economic Energy Efficiency Potential Study, 2004

So again, this may be stating the obvious, but as we start to invest in the smart grid and test programs such as SmartGridCity, it is just as important that we start to educate the public on importance and benefits of such a system so that there will be enough buy-in to allow the plan to succeed. And perhaps more importantly, getting widespread buy-in will help increase the reach of Big Brother. Muwahhh! Muwahhhh!


amyscholze said...
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amyscholze said...

I think this post hits the nail on the head in terms of marketing energy conservation and efficiency as a "game". It seems like "WINNING" has and always will be the heart of America's mentality. This is our double edged sword, because it either means that we'll only pick the battles we see to be the most convenient and easiest to win, or we'll fight harder for the issues that seem hopeless. I hope America takes the second stance, and continues to build smart grid cities like that in Boulder, even though there are bound to be glitches and mistakes to work through. Unfortunately, I fear that we are simply too spoiled, and as this post showed with the interviews, people's opinions refer back to the technologies they are most familiar and comfortable with, our metered infrastructure.
It seems the only way an idea will catch on and be supported by the public (wheter it is good or bad)is if it can be labeled as "popular" within pop culture. I feel like this can be done with energy conservation if American's will feel like they are winning by saving energy, just as Ford's dashboard does. There are many more steps that can be taken though to make energy a game. For example, and I have not checked if this is already available, but I think the SimCity virtual computer game has alot of potential in this area. The objective of this popular game is basically to build and design a city. If ideas like the smart grid could grab the millions of people who play these types of virtual living games world wide, the idea might catch on in real life. Can't you picture a person sitting in front of their computer screen clicking a square on the rooftop of their newly built mall to be the location of a solar array, or placing a wind turbine next to the city limit sign, or implementing a smart grid to the intire community. If an average citizen can build a nuclear power plant to power their virtual city for example, and somehow be presented with effieciency facts and alternative methods throughout the process, and the player plays until being successful at the end of the game, do you think they would apply that knowledge to real life? Or would the player just think of it as a game and walk away un-impacted? I don't know, but I think making energy fun for anybody can only be good press and initiate the potentially needed in our energy crisis.